“This is [bleeping] drama,” laments Bachelor In Paradise contestant Clare Crawley as she leans over the balcony of one of the thatched villas at the beachside resort where the hit reality show is filmed. No one else is visible in the shot—there doesn’t seem to be any audience for her rant. Voice shaky with frustration, she adds: “This whole [bleep] is drama.”
The camera cuts away from Clare to focus on a raccoon that has emerged from a dense tangle of mangroves by the beach. It stares intently in Clare’s direction, listening. The raccoon’s nose gently quivers, scenting something. “I don’t want this,” Clare sighs. “I just wanna have fun!”
The raccoon is visibly losing interest. Still staring toward Clare, it begins backing slowly into the undergrowth. As she bends down to examine her bug bites, the raccoon seizes the opportunity and turns tail, disappearing into the shadows.
When this scene first aired in August 2014 during Season One of Bachelor in Paradise, it was bizarre—utterly out of place in the Bachelor franchise, a reality show empire that trades on impossibly earnest faith in love at first sight, whirlwind romance, and fairy tale endings. Where The Bachelor promised heady conversations between potential soul mates, Bachelor in Paradise offered an obviously artificial exchange between a well-known runner-up from The Bachelor and a trash panda. No wonder some critics decried the scene as a sign that that this new addition to the Bachelor franchise was not working at all. But four seasons and many animals later, it has become clear that Bachelor in Paradise’s appeal is inseparable from the way it uses animal footage to defy the conventions of reality television.
The way the show’s host, Chris Harrison, describes it, the original inspiration to splice Clare Crawley’s confessional together with footage of an intruding raccoon was fortuitous. “The raccoon was real and the raccoon was there,” he insisted in an interview with New York magazine at the close of the first season: the raccoon really did peep out from beneath the trees while Clare was talking, even if the illusion that they were interacting originated in post-production. In another sense, though, the intrusion of the raccoon was far from random: it was, instead, just the latest example of a long history of incorporating animal interruptions into human theater. What makes it so engaging, then, is not its hilarious randomness, but the way it taps into and reinvents a tradition of using animal spontaneity to awaken audiences to the artificial conventions of Western drama.
Animals have been closely associated with theatricals since ancient times, when gladiatorial spectacles and the Roman circus advertised the excitement of exotic animal bodies engaging with human beings in front of a live audience. While critics often treat modern drama as an exclusively human enterprise, playwrights have drawn upon animals for comic relief since at least the 1590s, when Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona featured the clownish Launce walking onstage with his dog Crab. Later, in nineteenth-century Europe and America, an entire genre of animal melodrama emerged, where trained animal actors performed scripted roles onstage alongside human players—and just as often failed to perform those scripted roles, much to the delight of audiences.
Whether animals performed well or refused to perform at all, what made these kinds of animal drama so amusing to audiences was the sheer unpredictability of nonhuman creatures dropped into conventional theater. Onstage animals have a unique ability to flip the script, interrupting the established pacing and pattern of drama. As the drama critic Bert O. States once explained, when an animal such as a dog appears onstage, we are confronted with “a real dog on an artificial street. . . . the dog is blissfully above, or beneath, the business of playing, and we find ourselves cheering its performance precisely because it isn’t one.”
The animals of Bachelor in Paradise intrude into a very different realm from the scripted-and-rehearsed world of the theater. There is not supposed to be any kind of established plot on reality television—no preconceived drama an animal could interrupt. But the delightful surprise of the cats, parrots, frogs and dogs that frequently crop up on Bachelor in Paradise is the way they force a sudden recognition that there is a script to interrupt—or at least of series of conventions structuring the stories we tell about falling in love, conventions that we expect to be reaffirmed on our favorite romantic reality shows.
The shock of Clare’s conversation with the raccoon arose from the uncanny way it both drew on and defied those expectations, directing attention to the stilted conventions that structure our ideas of romance. On the one hand, Clare’s unexpected conversation with a forest creature was glaringly out of place: it was utterly unrealistic, the sort of thing you never see outside of Disney, where naïve princesses frolic through the early stages of their animated courtship stories with only animals for companionship. On the other hand, according to the assumptions structuring romantic reality television, that was essentially what Clare was: an unattached Disney princess trapped in an exotic location while she awaited rescue by some ideal husband, a knight-in-shining-armor who would usher in the fairy-tale ending she always wanted.
When they spliced Clare’s words together with an apparently receptive raccoon, in other words, the editors of Bachelor in Paradise forced viewers to confront the discordant and sometimes downright bizarre expectations that structure our notions of romance. They foregrounded the close relationship between fairy-tale narratives and reality television, even as they played up the absurdity of this relationship by showing how strange it would be to literally mix the commonplaces of those genres together—to actually see an eligible twenty-first-century woman speak with a woodland creature, for instance.
Viewers responded to the challenge as viewers have typically responded to the challenge of animals onstage: they embraced it, apparently appreciating both the real animal and the artificiality such animals exposed. The raccoon became a fan favorite, generating reams of internet commentary and even spawning a short-lived Twitter account. Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, the producers behind Bachelor in Paradise added captions to the Clare-raccoon conversation and used it as promotional material for the second season. Nor did Season Two disappoint: it featured Clare talking to a raccoon two more times, and also showed her branching out by confiding in a crab.
As it turned out, Clare was to be only the first of many contestants to show an odd intimacy with the animals of “paradise.” Ashley Iaconetti, for example, held conversations with an angelic image of her dead dog and with a living Amazon parrot. The most recent season of Bachelor in Paradise, which just wrapped up last month, has continued and expanded the tradition, building animals into the narrative in newly disruptive ways. So for example when Jordan, a hilariously self-aware male model, abandons his blossoming romance with Annaliese to seduce newcomer Jenna on a blanket on the beach, the camera barely even registers their connection before panning out to juxtapose the kissing couple with a ghost crab raising its claws aggressively as it clatters over the sand. Elsewhere, a first date between John (an endearingly geeky software developer) and Caroline (a realtor and former Miss Massachusetts who has always preferred jocks) seems like it might be derailed by a frog, a cat, and a dog that keep chasing each other around the patio tables, interrupting the staged romance of dinner al fresco. (The animals end up making the evening—and revealing both contestants’ good humor—instead.)
The campy appeal of these exchanges between human cast members and unwitting animals is two-fold. While they draw on an established habit of admiring animal interruptions of human artificiality, these animal scenes are particularly useful for drawing attention to the artificiality of reality television. When Clare seems to speak to a crab, when Ashley I. seems to confide in an Amazon, and when a dinner date seems to be repeatedly interrupted by the food chain, the incongruity of it all forces even the most passive viewer to question what is really happening: where are these animals coming from? Which of these conversations are real, natural, and in earnest? And what are animals doing here?
Sometimes, as in the animals that interrupt of John and Caroline’s date, the answers are unclear. In many cases, though, the answer is indubitable: the animals are belated additions to the footage, oddities spliced in by editors who see the animals as convenient stand-ins for producers and their assistants. The animals are, in short, placeholders for the many network staffers who befriend contestants and interact with them regularly in order to steer, cajole, and coerce them into the dramatic plots that make reality TV so compulsively watchable.
The Bachelor and The Bachelorette carefully remove these invisible actors from the drama, editing the show to make the programs’ ideas and interactions seem spontaneously, inherently dramatic. The recent spate of reality TV exposés, from the Lifetime drama UnREAL (2015-18) to the book Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Guilty Pleasure (2018), by contrast, have played up the artificial labor employed offstage to create the supposed “reality” of the Bachelor franchise. Yet these exposés are in a very real sense belated. What they reveal is simply a more prosaic version of what Bachelor in Paradise first intimated back in 2014: the entire Bachelor narrative is a sham, the product of artful manipulations on the part of a team of casting directors, producers, directors, and editors invested not in “reality,” but in maximum drama.
The reason that the animals of Bachelor in Paradise are so important is that they draw attention to this drama, encouraging even the most gullible spectator of the franchise to become a savvy, alienated analyst of the show’s inner workings — or, maybe, showing that these two positions were never as incompatible as they seemed. Animals occupy a key place in the drama of paradise, either by interrupting it (as in the date between John and Caroline) or by serving as glaringly unrealistic substitutes for the off-screen human beings who have been manufacturing it all along.
In light of all this, Clare’s confession to the raccoon seems loaded with a new level of significance.
“This whole [bleep] is drama,” she says as she leans over the balcony.
It was some member of the invisible production team that Clare Crawley sobbed to on that fateful day a raccoon crawled out of the woods to watch her. It was another member of the team that recorded the footage of her crying, her face obscured by a dangling tropical frond. Someone else captured the footage of the raccoon, and another member of the same faceless labor force welded the footage together, getting approval from invisible supervisors before placing it in the final cut.
Still, it was ultimately the raccoon that drove Clare’s words home, precisely because the raccoon could not have really listened to her or cared for what she said. Watching Clare, and watching the raccoon that seems to be talking with her, we are forced to admit it: This is not reality. This whole [bleep] is drama.
John MacNeill Miller may not live in paradise, but he still spends an unhealthy amount of time talking to animals. For a sense of what these unhinged one-sided conversations sound like, follow him on twitter: @Snarls_Dickens.